The killing of a wounded and apparently unarmed Iraqi by a US marine, videotaped by an embedded reporter from NBC on Saturday and broadcast around the world, is stirring anger in the Middle East and elsewhere.
That anger, reminiscent of the outcry that followed the release of torture photos from Abu Ghraib prison, is the latest upsurge in a propaganda war that the US has been embroiled in from the get-go in Iraq. US officials say an investigation has begun.
The act itself, perhaps a result of the fog of war, perhaps an act of revenge, represents a key challenge for the Marines. Keenly aware that US excesses in the past have turned global opinion against the war in Iraq, and thereby threatened US strategic objectives, commanders repeatedly have warned their subordinates not to shoot unarmed or seriously injured men.
The notion that armies are only as good as their least disciplined soldier in the media glare of modern warfare has become almost a matter of doctrine, given the need for enlisted men to think quickly in stressful situations.
"They call it the 'strategic corporal,' " says Lieut. Michael Aubry, a vehicle commander from Arlington Heights, Ill., with the 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance company in central Fallujah. "[Lower ranks] are seeing stuff and reacting to it without guidance" from higher authority.
In a 1999 article, Gen. Charles Krulak, then the Marine Commandant, coined the term. In the 21st century, he wrote, young marines would need "to confidently make well-reasoned and independent decisions under extreme stress - decisions that will likely be subject to the harsh scrutiny of both the media and the court of public opinion. In many cases, the individual Marine will be the most conspicuous symbol of American foreign policy."
Yet in the heat of the moment Saturday, a young marine did severe damage to the image of a precise and clean assault that the US had hoped to project from Fallujah. The footage has already become more fodder on jihadi websites peddling the conspiracy theory that the US is on a crusade against global Islam. It also caused cringing in the capitals of US friends and allies. Tuesday, UN Human Rights chief Louise Arbour called for an investigation of alleged US abuses in Fallujah.
Charles Smith, a professor of modern Middle East history at the University of Arizona, says the military triumph in Fallujah could be undermined by global anger at how the victory was achieved. In the coming weeks, he says, observers are likely to see "the Bush administration trumpeting 'victory' and much of the rest of the world, including Europe, considering some of our practices as war crimes."
Fallujah has long been a center of Iraq's information war - whether it was video of the four mutilated US security contractors there last April that insurgents hoped would demoralize the US, or the pictures of the women and children severely wounded in the retaliatory American assault that followed.
"This incident hasn't elicited the type of shock that Abu Ghraib did - that set a bar in a way, and lowered expectations,'' says Toby Jones, who tracks Islamist trends for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "But this will have a propaganda value that lives on."
On jihadi websites that Mr. Jones follows, the killing has been the top issue. A common theme at such sites has been that the public execution was a matter of policy. "The US did this to state clearly that the occupier will kill you like this if you resist," one typical post begins. The post was read 8,000 times, "pretty high traffic for these types of sites,'' says Jones.
The incident, captured by NBC reporter Kevin Sites, who is embedded with the Marines 3rd Battalion, 1st Regiment, is chilling. In a mosque that had seen heavy fighting the day before, marines enter to find Iraqi dead and wounded slumped against a wall. One of the marines begins cursing and shouting about a wounded man, insisting he's "faking he's dead." A marine fires at the man's upper body, and another marine says, "He's dead now."
What prompted the killing is not yet known. But Mr. Sites told newswires that another marine from the same unit had been killed the previous day by the booby-trapped body of a dead insurgent. The marine who killed the Iraqi had also been wounded in the face the previous day. The wounded Iraqi, in turn, had been disarmed and tended to by a separate marine unit earlier, who had left him behind to be picked up later.
Other marines said they understood why it might have happened under the stress of combat.
"I can see why he would do it. He was probably running around being shot at for days on end in Fallujah. There should be an investigation, but they should look into the circumstances," said Lance Cpl. Christopher Hanson, quoted by Reuters.
Commanders have worried about these kinds of incidents since long before the assault. In Fallujah, US forces first fell into disrepute, just days after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, when they fired on a crowd protesting their presence in a local school. Over a dozen Fallujans were gunned down during two days of unrest.
Then last April, when Marines launched an offensive in Fallujah after the killing of four American security contractors, the rising death toll on both sides and steady reports of heavyhanded, sometimes brutal American behavior caused a global outcry.
Aware of that history, commanders planning to seize Fallujah this time spent days reviewing procedures with their troops. Each day leading up to the start of the offensive, they went over strict rules of engagement printed on yellow cards and handed to every soldier and marine before the fight. The rules stressed that only armed men were to be shot.
Final briefings made clear that top brass understood the dangers of an event like the killing in the mosque and how it could undermine the entire military effort in Iraq, by poisoning popular opinion.
Even during the battle, radio traffic between mobile units included questions about targets engaged - "were they armed?" - and reminders from officers sometimes to slow to avoid mistakes.
• Scott Peterson contributed to this report from Fallujah, Iraq.